Star-topped spire, fountains with dolphins and a Red Navy man's sculpture: restoration of the Northern River Station underway

January 6
Construction and renovation

The Northern River Station is a landmark of the 1930s and a Stalinist Empire's piece. It has long been one of the symbols of Moscow. The station has been filmed many times, in the legendary 'Volga-Volga', 'Vertical Races', 'For Family Reasons' and other films.

When it comes to the white openwork building on the Khimki Reservoir’s bank, Muscovites first of all recall its unique details, such as a star with gems crowning the spire. According to the original design, the star would descend after the navigation was closed and rise again when it began. But this idea was never implemented until now.

The main river station's myth

The station's construction started in 1933 simultaneously with the Moskva — Volga Canal (today Moscow Canal) to be completed in 1937. Since then, thanks to the system of channels, river ships departing from here could reach the Azov, Black, Caspian, Baltic and White seas. This is why Moscow is sometimes called ‘a port of five seas’.

The three-story building designed by architects Alexei Rukhlyadev and Vladimir Krinsky resembles a huge floating two-deck ship with a 27 m high spire. A wide grand staircase leads to the entrance from the river side. The architects were inspired by the Doge's Palace in Venice.

The main myth of the river station building is related to its star: supposedly, it first crowned the Spasskaya Tower of the Kremlin and was mounted on the spire later.

'This is just a myth,' tells Konstantin Belyaev, Chief Architect of the Northern River Station restoration project. 'The stars that have crowned the Spasskaya Tower and the river station differ significantly in details, as they have different ray designs. According to archival data, the Spasskaya Tower had a star made in the Zhukovsky Central Aerohydrodynamic Institute. As for the star that crowned the river station's spire, it had a sign reading 'Molotov Plant No. 81'. Besides, chief architect of the building Alexei Rukhlyadev said in his published works of the 1930s that the spire of the Northern River Station would have a star looking like a Kremlin's one.

Most likely, the confusion arose from the fact that in 1937, when the Northern River Station was built, the star on the Kremlin's Spasskaya Tower was replaced. It was made of ruby glass. Moreover, it was dismantled in October (since it had lost its lustre due to precipitation and dust), and the star on the station's spire was mounted six months earlier, in spring, before the grand opening of the Canal. It was made in 1935 at the Molotov Automobile Plant in Nizhny Novgorod. A stainless steel star was faced with a galvanically gilded copper sheet, with a hammer and sickle fixed in its centre. They were decorated with Ural gems, amethysts, chrysolites, alexandrites, rock crystal and aquamarines. Each stone was placed in a separate gilded holder.

The five star rays were supposed to symbolise that one could reach the five seas from the North River Station. Due to a special mechanism, the star could rotate with the wind, like a weather vane.

The Northern River Station became a model for the construction of similar buildings in the USSR. River stations in Krasnoyarsk and Nizhny Novgorod built later featured the main tower and a spire, too. But a star crowns the spire only in Moscow.

'When we launched the star's restoration, the first thing was to carefully dismantle it. A team of professionals was carefully removing the star from the height of 50 m for a few hours by specialised equipment. Moreover, weather conditions were unfavourable during the dismantling, for a strong wind had risen. Given that the star was about 5 m wide, first we had to rotate it several times to carefully release it from its holder,' Head of the Moscow Cultural Heritage Department Alexei Yemelyanov told.

Since the late 1980s, the station has been going through hard times. With the river traffic decline, the building has gradually fell into disrepair. But in 2015, the Northern River Station was placed under the management of the Moscow administration, which later decided to restore it.

A port of five seas: new life of the Northern River Station

The restoration launched in August 2018. 'Restoration is a crucial event in the history of the Northern River Station. It saw big restoration in 1978–1979, which included facade works, the grand staircase's recreation, restoration of floors and painting in interiors. Over the long years of operation (over 80), the unique Rukhlyadev and Krinsky's creation has become extremely dilapidated. In 2010, it was completely closed due to its critical condition. First of all, specialists reinforced the structure, as the building had started sliding down towards the river. When this work was finished, they began to restore its original appearance,' said Head of the Moscow Cultural Heritage Department Alexei Yemelyanov.

Specialists repaired the mechanism of the spire, the chief decoration of the building. The restored star is to return to its historical place soon.

'Commissioning of the spire's mobile mechanism has been completed,' Konstantin Belyaev said. 'Following tests proved that everything is OK. Now we are launching restoration of the 730 kg gold star. It was dismantled and placed in a specially built hangar. Specialists make it ready for electrochemical gilding using electrodes and an electrolyte with gold added. First, the star parts get cleared of rust and dirt, and then a gold solution is being rubbed into the metal with special equipment until the gold layer reaches one micron. The restorers have decided to preserve the author's gilding. Special stainless steel plates will be mounted on the beams, the cone and some other part, so that these fragments of original parts could be accessible to researchers. The metal cone the star was mounted on has already been gilded, and now it is the star's turn.'

The spire, the most important and sophisticated element of the monument, required special care, as during the restoration the mechanism turned out to lack a steel wheel moving important parts such as support rollers necessary to ensure overall smooth operation. It was made according to archival documents. The spire's weight was another surprise, too, as it actually supposed to weigh 16 tons, but during further research it turned out to barely reach 13 tons, so we had to dismantle part of the counterweights.

The restoration of porcelain dishes that decorated the facade is underway. According to Konstantin Belyaev, this is one of the most delicate and specific works. Restorers recreate ceramics, lost fragments, and gild individual elements. It took six months to restore porcelain from the eastern part of the building. It was a huge multi-stage work. In the warm season, specialists will continue reconstructing the terrazite plaster in line with the technology.

The stone parts of the fountains in the courtyards have been restored, with new concrete bowls made, and sculptural groups of dolphins and birds being restored. Moreover, a sculptor is recreating an architectural group of six birds, swans and loons, according to the author's drawings and old photos.

Time did not spare the sculptures that had adorned the first tier of the tower, the Red Army soldier, the Red Navy man, the southern collective farm woman and the northern worker. They have come down to our time in a very miserable condition. So specialists have made their replicas to mount outside the building, with the original sculptures displayed inside the station.

Фото: Евгений Самарин

Work is underway on gilding letters on the central frieze, clock hands and the sun. The restoration of the artificial marble used in the design continues. In addition, rough finishing of the premises has been completed. The restoration of paintings, decorative elements in the interiors, restoration and mounting of door units are in progress.

The building of the Northern River Station is expected to recover its former appearance as early as 2020.

As in ‘Volga-Volga’ film

The Historical Park with sculptures and embankment is to become a modern and multi-purpose area.

The 24 ha Park, together with the station building, is a cultural heritage site of regional significance. Designed by engineer T. Shafransky, it was laid out in 1936–1938. Its axial composition with a system of perpendicular alleys is typical of the Soviet landscape art of the 1930s and 1940s.

Initially, the Park had 14 sculptural groups and fountains, but almost all of them have been lost over time. Only a bust of academician A. Krylov designed by sculptor L. Karbel and architect Yu. Goltsev and 'Waterway' sculpture at the entrance to the Park have survived. Made in 1937 by sculptor Yu. Koon, it features a girl walking towards visitors, holding a sailboat model over her head. To the north of the building is an extant Sport sculpture of a young man and two girls playing basketball. They are to be restored, too.

The Central Alley of the Khimki River Station's Park. Photo by M. Redkin, V. Savostyanov. 1957. Courtesy of the Main Archive Department of Moscow

Today, the Park’s grounds are being upgraded, with the embankment, the piers, and the station square improved and landscaped. Lost elements of layout structure and decor are to be recreated.

Seven playgrounds will be reconstructed or created. Design of one of the playgrounds will be based on the film ‘Volga-Volga’, with a multi-deck ship, a prototype of Sevryuga, as its highlight. The other six playgrounds will form a single playing area in the south of the Park.

The Park will have new streetball, gorodki, ping-pong and badminton grounds with an ice rink in winter.

The original fence will be recreated along the Park's border from Leningradsky Prospekt's side. One of the alleys will regain its two fountains. There will be a summer cinema opened in the northern part of the Park, closer to the embankment.

The park’s grounds will become a very comfortable place to have a pleasant walk and recreation, with new rental pavilions, terraced cafes and kiosks on the central grand alley of the Park. Their look will be recreated according to historical photographs.

New lighting poles will be installed and partly replaced for architectural and art lighting, with trees and shrubs planted, flower beds laid in the same places as many years ago.

In summer, Muscovites will sunbathe and swim in the recreation area on the embankment built on pontoons. It will have a swimming pool and a cafe. There will be a stream running in another part of the embankment, a scale model of the Moscow Canal with miniature copies of the gateways.

Over 77 per cent of 'active citizens' have supported the restoration project

The restoration project of the Northern River Station has been supported by the voting in the Active Citizen project. 203,721 people have expressed their opinion. The majority (77.06 per cent) of participants have supported the work in progress at the site.

The proposed project have been fully approved by 63.36 per cent of voters. Another 0.85 per cent have agreed with the project and proposed to arrange more areas for families with children, add more benches and trash bins. 12.85 per cent have considered the North River Station restoration project useful, but not a priority one. Only 2.53 per cent of the voting participants have not supported the ongoing work.

10.56 per cent have found it difficult to answer, another 9.85 per cent have given the right to specialists to solve this issue. Also, citizens have chosen what should be arranged in the station’s building after the restoration.

15.23 per cent of 'active citizens' would like to have a tour service organised at the Northern River Station. 14.66 per cent of Muscovites have spoken in favour of halls with historical interiors accessible. 12.04 per cent have voted for restaurants and cafes, and 3.87 percent have preferred sports equipment rental. The most popular answer was 'All of the above', which has received 47.53 per cent of votes.

Almost a thousand voters have offered their ideas, including opening of the River Fleet Museum and a cinema. 2.53 per cent of citizens have entrusted the right to choose the activities to specialists, another 3.52 per cent have found it difficult to answer.

More than half of the participants (53.29 per cent) believe that the Northern River Station should be open 24/7 after the restoration, with just less than a quarter (24.66 per cent) opposing votes. 14.67 per cent have found it difficult to answer. 7.38 per cent of participants have chosen the option ‘This should be decided by specialists'.


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